Real Talk | Knowledge of black history still lacking

Real Talk | Knowledge of black history still lacking

The beginning of Black History Month is an appropriate time to assess the state of its inclusion in the public school curriculum.

African-American history is both popular and critically acclaimed. Books on African-American history routinely make the New York Times best-seller list and regularly win major book awards.

Thirteen states, including Illinois, have mandates or state laws requiring the teaching of black history. By these matrix, black history has been incorporated into the mainstream of U.S. society. Yet, knowledge of the African-American sociohistorical experience remains quite low.

President Gerald Ford's 1976 decree making the 50-year-old commemoration an official national observance perhaps best illustrates this contradiction. In his remarks, Ford thanked Carter G. Woodson for organizing the annual tribute to African-American accomplishments: "One hundred years ago," Dr. Woodson initiated what was then called Negro History Week in 1926.

Ironically, the president who declared Black History Month an official U.S. celebration was unfamiliar with its history. Unfortunately, Ford's lack of knowledge is still representative.

Unawareness of the black experience prevails because black history is not truly incorporated into the public school curriculum. While black history courses are regular elective courses in numerous school districts, only Philadelphia has a mandatory course. Moreover, few of the state mandates provide financial assistance for curriculum enactment and funds for enforcement.

In a real sense, black history remains marginal to the public school curriculum. Its continued marginalization accounts for students' scant knowledge of slavery. "Teaching Hard History: Slavery," a 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, found only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors knew slavery was the "central cause" of the Civil War. Nearly half considered the Civil War a tax revolt. Less than a quarter (22 percent) understood the Constitution sanctioned enslavement and benefitted wealthy enslavers.

Further, the authors of "Teaching Hard History: Slavery" discovered the emphasis on "progress" undermined teachers' ability to confront uncomfortable and unresolved legacies of the past. "Progress" pushed public school educators to focus on feel-good stories. Thus, they emphasized whites' abolitionist activity and narratives of racial cooperation and reconciliation. Teachers disconnect slavery from its ideology, white supremacy. And more importantly, educators fail to explain slavery as a system of labor exploitation and its role in building the U.S.

The problem transcends the teaching of slavery and extends to the entirety of African-American history. Research into the State of African American History and Culture in K-12 Public Schools, a 2015 study of 525 elementary and secondary schools, reveals that only one to two lessons a year are dedicated to teaching black history.

Though enthusiastic about teaching black history, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NAAHC) report found they "lack content knowledge, confidence, time and resources, and are concerned about students' maturity levels."

These problems derive from limitations in teacher certification and in-service programs. Teachers lack knowledge and confidence because few certification programs require coursework in black history. Lacking content knowledge, it's not surprising they evade the subject and offer simplistic content and celebratory interpretations when forced to engage it.

The emphasis on celebratory history often manifests as a focus on significant individuals. In African-American history, this approach is called contributionism. Not surprisingly, schools have succeeded in teaching students the names of famous black individuals.

Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano asked 2,000 high school juniors and seniors throughout the 50 states to list the 10 most famous personalities in U.S. history, "from Columbus to the present day," excluding presidents and their wives. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks appeared on 67 and 60 percent of students' lists. Forty-four percent of students listed Harriett Tubman. Susan B. Anthony led white figures with 34 percent. Oprah Winfrey was selected by 22 percent of students, putting four African-Americans in the top 10.

Yet, as both "Teaching Hard History: Slavery" and Research into the State of African American History and Culture in K-12 Public Schools discuss, schools have been less successful in teaching complexity. This is especially true concerning interpretations extracted from the black experience, which diverge from and often contradict narratives constructed from U.S. history.

The master narrative of U.S. history presents the years 1800-1854 as a time of national progress, as a moment of democratization and the spread of liberty. During these years, the Louisiana Purchase doubled U.S. territory. The transition toward industrial capitalism and expansion of democratic rights made this period "progressive," for whites.

In contrast, Indian nations were removed, half of Mexico was seized and blacks were plunged into the "first nadir." The Cotton Kingdom brought with it the domestic slave trade, the systematic break up of families, the factory-like routinization of work and the imposition of a brutal discipline on the enslaved.

A complex and correct teaching of African-American history necessitates treating the black experience on its own terms. If we are to truly commemorate black history, we must overhaul teacher certification and in-service programs.

Teachers must be empowered with the knowledge, confidence and resources to introduce their students to a comprehensive and complicated understanding of the black experience. Such an approach would include analysis of the structural and ideological components of racial oppression and exploration of the repertories of African-American community building and resistance.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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